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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Power shortage

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When I was a boy in Flemingdon Park, all of us kids who resided in the public housing units had to trek across the broad east-west hydro fields on schooldays. The fields cut through the community, separating the school from the apartment buildings and labyrinths of townhouses where we lived. In springtime, the fields flooded. Sloshing through ankle deep puddles under the 230,000 volt transmission lines on a rainy day became a lesson in electrodynamics. One of us discovered that if you held the metal shaft of your umbrella in one hand, and with the other, placed your index finger a centimetre or two from the shaft, a small, blue-white spark arched between the gap. Accompanying this phenomenon was a weird, humming sensation emitting upward through your rubber boots. It didn't always occur, but when it did, it was amazing. We were kids — what did we know about things like stray voltage, electromagnetic radiation, or even heart failure?

My Grenoble Drive townhouse afforded me a nearly unobstructed view of the 11.5 hectares of hydro fields. Neighbourhood children spent hours participating in unstructured play in this vast space. We played baseball, football, British bulldog and a game we invented called "500." Some of us even camped in the fields. Adults used this space for baseball, soccer, croquet, Frisbee, golf, and many other activities. Our Scottish neighbour, Mr. Beveridge, practiced his bagpipes out there.

The hydro fields were ours. Access was open, whenever, for whatever. We felt like we owned them. Having unlimited access to the hydro fields was like having access to the biggest backyard in Toronto.

Today, students continue to walk under the power lines to get to school. However, access to the fields for community use has changed. As children, we were technically using the fields without permission. Back then, the land belonged to Ontario Hydro. Eventually, the City paid a nominal fee for its use. In 2002, ownership was transferred to the Province, making the Ontario Realty Corporation (ORC) the landlord. A license agreement between the City and the ORC would require the City to pick up 50% of the land tax, but this agreement has yet to be finalized. Nonetheless, use of the space requires a permit from Parks, Forestry and Recreation — without a permit, the City's insurance policy doesn't apply.

Since my time, Flemingdon's population has ballooned to an estimated 25,000 inhabitants, including significant numbers of children and youth. Largely refugees and immigrants, the majority live in overcrowded rental apartments, many in disrepair. This community covets its open spaces, but residents have begun to feel relegated to spectator status.

Recently the city installed their distinctive "A City Within A Park" signage, followed by the laying of a cricket pitch and 12 mini-soccer fields with bleachers. These upgrades were part of a million dollar makeover spelled out in the Flemingdon Park Design Development & Implementation Plan. When the report was being drafted, the community was consulted. People expressed concern that once facilities were upgraded, use by outsiders would trump their own.

The design plan is proving to be a mixed blessing for the community. They'll benefit from surfaced pathways, proper lighting, a running track, and a meeting place complete with billboards, seating, and a drinking fountain. The problem isn't that Parks and Recreation is issuing permits to outside groups, it's that improved facilities have attracted groups who use the fields without permits.

The cricket pitch is a prime example. Since it was laid, the hydro fields have become a focal point for cricket play across the city. Through the summer, on some weekdays and every weekend, cricket matches, on both the formal pitch and on makeshift pitches, begin at seven in the morning and continue until sundown. While it's hard to tell how many players are local residents, it's easy to identify those playing without a permit. Even before play begins, groups with permits bring in portable washroom facilities for players' convenience. At day's end, they collect litter, as the permits require. Groups without permits do neither and it's reflected in the mess left behind. On some weekends, residents have difficulty simply crossing the field because their desired paths, worn by years of use, cross directly through a pitch.

For a long time, Flemingdon Park residents assumed ownership of the hydro fields based on proximity. Although they did not have formal permission, they were in practice able to use it without restrictions. Ironically, now that the City has taken over and made the space public, using it has become more complicated for locals. Facility upgrades are appealing to many people outside the community, and as a result, the community's own access to Toronto's biggest backyard appears to be shrinking.